Democracy turns on the radio

Been playing around with some radical online radio stations. And man, the future of radio sounds sweet. Here are some new (and not so new) online radio applications. A glimpse of things to come…

Jelli

Jelli plays the songs you want to hear. Not the stale, on-air mockery of “tell us what you want to hear and we’ll play it, since our very limited play list has it on a three-hourly rotation anyway”. No way! This is real-time sound where you vote songs higher up the playing order, or throw bombs at songs you don’t want to hear. So while I am writing this I have just “rocked” Frank Zappa’s “Keep it greasy” up to number one. I made it happen! Me! My god-complex is, however, short-lived.

Turns out some twat who digs Block Party does not feel my Zappa’s. With that, the war is on. Both of us are now throwing his arsenal at the others’ songs. Boom boom boom! A healthy dose of adrenalin mixed with ego and suddenly radio becomes an online video game.

In fact, it is. Jelli is called a “community powered game”. You, as a player, get to choose one of three radio stations. Once you start listening to your station, you can suggest songs you want to hear, and give songs already showing up in the line-up a thumbs up (moving it up the play list), or a bomb (moving it down).

You can even kick a song off the air mid-way through it (if you and a few like-minded individuals hate the song enough to throw your communal vote at it).

But as in any democracy, your rights are limited. After 5 seconds of Olivia Newton John’s “Grease Remixed” I was ready to explode her ass. But I had used up all my bombs to fend off the attack on my Zappa line-up.  In any war, you have to choose your Jelli battles wisely.

Jelli is real-time community radio with all the trimmings you expect from a specialized social platform. As for the human touch – live messages are read out on-air by a presenter type personality.

And now terrestrial radio stations in the US are taking Jelli to the airwaves (stations like 105.3FM in San Francisco and thousands of stations in the same group). A 24-hour national digital radio station called Hot30 Jelli has even been created (www.hot30.com), where listeners go online to vote for the next song they want to hear (on the terrestrial station in real time). So the next song is decided half a second before the previous song finishes. How awesome is that?!

But still, programming your own radio station is a full-time job. So if you have all the time in the world to plot total ear domination, Jelli is the station for you.

I, however, want to hear what I feel like at that precise moment. I pick a genre, an emotion actually. And then I expect my station to deliver what I need. Same as when I decide on which CD I want to hear – I’m looking for an emotion usually linked to a genre.

Jelli is an emotional roller-coaster. Zappa followed by Mrs. Newton-John tests even the most hardy of ears.

If you go with what’s being programmed by the world-wide web, Jelli is a fun way to discover new stuff. But it’s very needy. If you let your line-up slip for too long you’ll hear songs that will make your ears bleed.

And sometimes, I don’t really want the song I think I want. I want similar stuff that reinforces my feelings.

Jelli will never be unobtrusive, background, in-office listening. Certainly not while my Zappa’s are rocking it!

Pandora

On to Pandora (www.pandora.com). It’s free, but not for me. I’m one of billions who live outside the island of the United States of America where Pandora is not allowed to exist. But I’m sure the nice people at Pandora are plotting a handy way around the problem as we speak.

Pandora allows you to listen to your favourite type of music in the form of your own unique, self-created station. You give Pandora a few artist names or songs you like and Pandora then stocks your station with an endless stream of related artists and songs. Your very own station based on your specific preferences.

You like more than one genre of music? No prob. You can create up to 100 radio stations.

You can even shape them by telling Pandora which of its suggested songs you love and which you hate. You can skip songs, although within limitations, such as 6 skips per hour, per station for Pandora subscribers and 12 total skips per day, across all stations for free Pandora listeners.

Another bummer of going the cheapskate freebie route is that you are bombarded with ads (the subscription route is ad-free). Sounds like people are willing to pay not to hear ads. And with talk of Pandora being installed in cars it takes custom-made radio to a whole new level. Just wondering what will happen when you drive across the border to Canada?

Slacker

Again, Slacker (www.slacker.com) is only avail in the US. They tell me Slacker takes the strongest benefits of radio and merges them with the benefits of portable web applications. Making radio personal, portable and free. They claim it combines expert music knowledge with your personal taste. They claim it’s the best way to discover new artists and hear old favourites. I dunno. Let me know if you’ve heard it.

Last FM

With Last.fm (www.last.fm) you choose the music you like and get everything in the same genre downloaded to your play list. You get to listen to other people’s collections, you learn and discover more of what you like. You interact with the songs to shift their importance up or down in your station. Which means one of the biggest reasons to listen to traditional radio, namely to be introduced to new music, falls away in this customized application.

To listen to Last.fm you have to subscribe if you live outside the US, UK or Germany. Subscription is very affordable (less than a Big Mac a month) and you can try it out with a free 30-track trial.

Unlike Pandora, you can’t necessarily listen to the whole song that is recommended to you by other users. Some of the songs are only 30” snippets. Some tracks are also not available at all. But there are lots of radio station options on Last.fm where you can listen to an endless stream of stuff you like. For example artist specific radio stations, such as “Radiohead Radio” or genre specific stations.

And once you’ve created a user profile, it saves all the music you’ve listened. But best of all – it recommends similar songs and artist to what you like. Opening a whole new avenue for music exploration. I love it. And I’m addicted to it. Sometimes I don’t even miss real people or current events and I can explore for hours. But then again it’s entertainment, it’s not real life.

Listening to these and other stations create a whole list of questions. Like what do these models mean for traditional terrestrial radio? Why do so many radio stations still think streaming the same content but on another platform will keep their listeners happy? What is the implication for countries (even continents) where 150 Kbps broadband connections are a dream? What happens when listeners decide to vote “no” for advertising? What about the companionship only a warm voice over the radio gives?

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